Rosh Hashana: The Listening Holiday

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

Rosh Hashana is a Listening Holiday.

In contrast to the other Holidays, which I would classify more as seeing holidays. Let me explain.  In the Biblical times, for the festivals of Sukkot, Shavuot, and Pesach, the Jewish people are commanded to go on a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.  It is the pilgrimage to the Temple which forms the central act of observance.  And on their journey, the Jewish people are commanded on these three occasions to see the divine, — “reiyat panim.” To see God’s face.

And, if you think about the holidays, the rituals associated with Pescah, Shavout and Sukkot all involve seeing—the lulav and etrog on Sukkot are supposed to look a certain way.  The seder plate must appear at the center of the seder table on Pesach, and seeing the inside of the Torah is central to Shavuot.

In contrast, the fundamental principle of Rosh Hashanah is listening as manifested through the requirement to hear the shofar. The shofar– the central ritual of Rosh Hahsana. 

The truth is, it wasn’t always so clear that the primary obligation of the day is to hear the shofar. 

There’s an interesting disagreement about whether the blessing we say before blowing the shofar should be a blessing on blowing the shofar or a blessing on hearing the shofar.  Is the primary obligation to blow the shofar or to hear the shofar.  The blessing of course is :

“Blessed are You, Hashem,Our God, King of the world, who sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the Shofar”

ברוך אתה ה’אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לשמוע קול שופר

It is a blessing over the sound—the cries of tekiya, shevarim and truah.

The essence of the mitzvah of shofar is not the blowing in of itself, but it is about hearing the sound emanating from the shofar. 

And yet, the first day of Rosh Hashana coincides with Shabbat, and there is no shofar. On Shabbat, we don’t blow shofar lest we come to carry the shofar and desecrate Shabbat observance.  The holiness of Shabbat overrides the shofar blast.

So, if the central mitzvah of the day is shofar, if the entire day centers around listening, how can we possibly have a spiritually meaningful experience without the sounds of the shofar blasts?

I would like to suggest that Rosh Hashan is always, with or without the shofar, fundamentally a holiday about listening and hearing. 

On the first day, we read the story of Sara and of Channa, two women who were barren. God remembered them, he heard their cries, and rewarded them with children.   In the powerful unetaneh tokef prayer, we are told that god is found in kol d’mama dakah yishma—God’s presence is heard in a still, thin sound.  If we just open ourselves to hear, even in the stillness, we will hear gd’s presence reverberate.  And we declare in the malchiyut section of musaf:—Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Ehad.  Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.   It is a plea to Israel to Listen. Not only to hear, but to listen.  We should hear, and listen to what others say. Hear and listen to our own inner voice. And hear and then listen for God’s voice. 

And so, when one does not have a shofar with which to hear, we must still find ways to listen. 

The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 27b) relates the following strange scenario:

“If one blows (Shofar) into a pit … if the sound of the Shofar is heard, the mitzvah has been fulfilled, but if the sound of the echo is heard, the mitzvah has not been fulfilled.

התוקע לתוך הבור, או לתוך הדות, או לתוך הפיטס, אם קול שופר שמע – יצא, ואם קול הברה שמע – לא יצא.

One who blows but does not hear the sound of Shofar does not fulfill his obligation;

hence, once who blows into a ditch and hears only an echo falls short of fulfilling the Mitzvah, as the echo is not considered the sound of the actual Shofar.

I would like to read this metaphorically.  Perhaps, what’s important here, is to hear the actual sounds of the shofar, to listen with complete intent.  Hearing remnants, parts or pieces of the sounds is considered insufficient listening.  The echo is distant, far off and distorts the actual sound.  And so too with that which surrounds us.  We must not hear the echoes of what others say to us, but rather, we are meant to hear and listen completely, with our entire body and soul.

There’s a children’s story written by Joan Fassler, a child psychologist, called “The Boy with a Problem.”  In it, Johnny has a problem.  Now the book never reveals his problem. But the problem grows bigger and bigger each day. Johnny goes to a doctor to discuss his problem, and the doctor gives him a little pill. But the problem does not go away. Then he tried to tell his teacher, who suggests n art project but the problem does not go away.  He tries to tell his mother, who says kids shouldn’t worry so much.  But the problem does not go away.  And each time rather than listen to him, they attempt to offer a solution that does not help.  Until one day, his friend, Peter, asks him what is wrong. And Johnny tells him the problem, and Peter listens. He listens all the way up the hill, and then all the way down the hill until Johnny suddenly doesn’t feel like he has a problem anymore. 

Peter teaches us the simple, yet crucial art of listening.  Imagine what it would be like to really listen. To listen to our inner voices. To listen to others. and to listen for the quiet still voice of God.    

So what are we supposed to be listening for on this Rosh Hashana?  I suggest that this first day of Rosh Hashana that is also Shabbat, at each point when the shofar is meant to sound, pause.  Give yourself the opportunity to just listen.  To listen to what those whom we love are saying. To listen to our own inner voices. And to listen for the voice of God.

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